Authors: Delia Owens
She and Pa did this two-step, living apart in the same shack, sometimes not seeing each other for days. Almost never speaking. She tidied up after herself and after him, like a serious little woman. She wasn’t near enough of a cook to fix meals for him—he usually wasn’t there anyway—but she made his bed, picked up, swept up, and washed the dishes most of the time. Not because she’d been told, but because it was the only way to keep the shack decent for Ma’s return.
A HAD ALWAYS SAID
the autumn moon showed up for Kya’s birthday. So even though she couldn’t remember the date of her birth, one evening when the moon rose swollen and golden from the lagoon, Kya said to herself, “I reckon I’m seven.” Pa never mentioned it; certainly there was no cake. He didn’t say anything about her going to school either, and she, not knowing much about it, was too afraid to bring it up.
Surely Ma would come back for her birthday, so the morning after the harvest moon she put on the calico dress and stared down the lane. Kya willed Ma to be walking toward the shack, still in her alligator
shoes and long skirt. When no one came, she got the pot of grits and walked through the woods to the seashore. Hands to her mouth, she held her head back and called, “
Kee-ow, kee-ow, kee-ow.
” Specks of silver appeared in the sky from up and down the beach, from over the surf.
“Here they come. I can’t count as high as that many gulls are,” she said.
Crying and screeching, the birds swirled and dived, hovered near her face, and landed as she tossed grits to them. Finally, they quieted and stood about preening, and she sat on the sand, her legs folded to the side. One large gull settled onto the sand near Kya.
“It’s my birthday,” she told the bird.
The rotted legs of the old abandoned fire tower straddled the bog, which created its own tendrils of mist. Except for cawing crows, the hushed forest seemed to hold an expectant mood as the two boys, Benji Mason and Steve Long, both ten, both blond, started up the damp staircase on the morning of October 30, 1969.
“Fall ain’t s’posed to be this hot,” Steve called back to Benji.
“Yeah, and everythang quiet ’cept the crows.”
Glancing down between the steps, Steve said, “Whoa. What’s that?”
“See, there. Blue clothes, like somebody’s lyin’ in the mud.”
Benji called out, “Hey, you!
“I see a face, but it ain’t movin’.”
Arms pumping, they ran back to the ground and pushed their way to the other side of the tower’s base, greenish mud clinging to their boots. There lay a man, flat on his back, his left leg turned grotesquely forward from the knee. His eyes and mouth wide open.
“Jesus Christ!” Benji said.
“My God, it’s Chase Andrews.”
“We better git the sheriff.”
“But we ain’t s’posed to be out here.”
“That don’t matter now. And them crows’ll be snooping ’round anytime now.”
They swung their heads toward the cawing, as Steve said, “Maybe one of us oughta stay, keep them birds off him.”
“Ya’re crazy if you think I’m gonna stick ’round here by maself. And I’m bettin’ a Injun-head you won’t either.”
With that, they grabbed their bikes, pedaled hard down the syrupy sand track back to Main, through town, and ran inside the low-slung building where Sheriff Ed Jackson sat at his desk in an office lit with single lightbulbs dangling on cords. Hefty and of medium height, he had reddish hair, his face and arms splotched with pale freckles, and sat thumbing through a
Without knocking, the boys rushed through the open door.
“Sheriff . . .”
“Hey, Steve, Benji. You boys been to a fire?”
“We seen Chase Andrews flat out in the swamp under the fire tower. He looks dead. Ain’t movin’ one bit.”
Ever since Barkley Cove had been settled in 1751, no lawman extended his jurisdiction beyond the saw grass. In the 1940s and ’50s, a few sheriffs set hounds on some mainland convicts who’d escaped into the marsh, and the office still kept dogs just in case. But Jackson mostly ignored crimes committed in the swamp. Why interrupt rats killing rats?
But this was Chase. The sheriff stood and took his hat from the rack. “Show me.”
Limbs of oak and wild holly screeched against the patrol truck as
the sheriff maneuvered down the sandy track with Dr. Vern Murphy, lean and fit with graying hair, the town’s only physician, sitting beside him. Each man swayed to the tune of the deep ruts, Vern’s head almost banging against the window. Old friends about the same age, they fished together some and were often thrown onto the same case. Both silent now at the prospect of confirming whose body lay in the bog.
Steve and Benji sat in the truck bed with their bikes until the truck stopped.
“He’s over there, Mr. Jackson. Behind them bushes.”
Ed stepped from the truck. “You boys wait here.” Then he and Dr. Murphy waded the mud to where Chase lay. The crows had flown off when the truck came, but other birds and insects whirred above. Insolent life thrumming on.
“It’s Chase, all right. Sam and Patti Love won’t survive this.” The Andrewses had ordered every spark plug, balanced every account, strung every price tag at the Western Auto for their only child, Chase.
Squatting next to the body, listening for a heartbeat with his stethoscope, Vern declared him dead.
“How long ya reckon?” Ed asked.
“I’d say at least ten hours. The coroner’ll know for sure.”
“He must’ve climbed up last night, then. Fell from the top.”
Vern examined Chase briefly without moving him, then stood next to Ed. Both men stared at Chase’s eyes, still looking skyward from his bloated face, then glanced at his gaping mouth.
“How many times I’ve told folks in this town something like this was bound to happen,” the sheriff said.
They had known Chase since he was born. Had watched his life ease from charming child to cute teen; star quarterback and town hot shot to working for his parents. Finally, handsome man wedding the
prettiest girl. Now, he sprawled alone, less dignified than the slough. Death’s crude pluck, as always, stealing the show.
Ed broke the silence. “Thing is, I can’t figure why the others didn’t run for help. They always come up here in a pack, or at least a couple of ’em, to make out.” The sheriff and doctor exchanged brief but knowing nods that even though he was married, Chase might bring another woman to the tower. “Let’s step back out of here. Get a good look at things,” Ed said, as he lifted his feet, stepping higher than necessary. “You boys stay where you are; don’t go making any more tracks.”
Pointing to some footprints that led from the staircase, across the bog, to within eight feet of Chase, Ed asked them, “These your prints from this morning?”
“Yessir, that’s as far as we went,” Benji said. “Soon as we seen it was Chase, we backed up. You can see there where we backed up.”
“Okay.” Ed turned. “Vern, something’s not right. There’s no footprints near the body. If he was with his friends or whoever, once he fell, they would’ve run down here and stepped all around him, knelt next to him. To see if he was alive. Look how deep our tracks are in this mud, but there’re no other fresh tracks. None going toward the stairs or away from the stairs, none around the body.”
“Maybe he was by himself, then. That would explain everything.”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing that doesn’t explain. Where’re
footprints? How did Chase Andrews walk down the path, cross this muck to the stairs so he could climb to the top, and not leave any footprints himself?”
A few days after her birthday, out alone barefooting in mud, Kya bent over, watching a tadpole getting its frog legs. Suddenly she stood. A car churned through deep sand near the end of their lane. No one ever drove here. Then the murmur of people talking—a man and a woman—drifted through the trees. Kya ran fast to the brush, where she could see who was coming but still have ways to escape. Like Jodie taught her.
A tall woman emerged from the car, unsteadily maneuvering in high heels just like Ma had done along the sandy lane. They must be the orphanage people come to get her.
I can outrun her for sure. She’d fall nose-first in them shoes.
Kya stayed put and watched the woman step to the porch’s screen door.
“Yoo-hoo, anybody home? Truant officer here. I’ve come to take Catherine Clark to school.”
Now this was something. Kya sat mute. She was pretty sure she was supposed to go to school at six. Here they were, a year late.
She had no notion how to talk to kids, certainly not to a teacher, but she wanted to learn to read and what came after twenty-nine.
“Catherine, dear, if ya can hear me, please come on out. It’s the law, hon; ya gotta go to school. But ’sides that, you’ll like it, dear. Ya get a hot lunch every day for free. I think today they’re havin’ chicken pie with crust.”
That was something else. Kya was very hungry. For breakfast she’d boiled grits with soda crackers stirred in because she didn’t have any salt. One thing she already knew about life: you can’t eat grits without salt. She’d eaten chicken pie only a few times in her life, but she could still see that golden crust, crunchy on the outside, soft inside. She could feel that full gravy taste, like it was round. It was her stomach acting on its own that made Kya stand up among the palmetto fronds.
“Hello, dear, I’m Mrs. Culpepper. You’re all grown up and ready to go to school, aren’t ya?”
“Yes’m,” Kya said, head low.
“It’s okay, you can go barefoot, other chillin do, but ’cause you’re a li’l girl, you have to wear a skirt. Do you have a dress or a skirt, hon?”
“Okay then, let’s go get ya dressed up.”
Mrs. Culpepper followed Kya through the porch door, having to step over a row of bird nests Kya had lined up along the boards. In the bedroom Kya put on the only dress that fit, a plaid jumper with one shoulder strap held up with a safety pin.
“That’s fine, dear, you look just fine.”
Mrs. Culpepper held out her hand. Kya stared at it. She hadn’t touched another person in weeks, hadn’t touched a stranger her whole life. But she put her small hand in Mrs. Culpepper’s and was led down the path to the Ford Crestliner driven by a silent man wearing a gray
fedora. Sitting in the backseat, Kya didn’t smile and didn’t feel like a chick tucked under its mother’s wing.
Barkley Cove had one school for whites. First grade through twelfth went to a brick two-story at the opposite end of Main from the sheriff’s office. The black kids had their own school, a one-story cement block structure out near Colored Town.
When she was led into the school office, they found her name but no date of birth in the county birth records, so they put her in the second grade, even though she’d never been to school a day in her life. Anyhow, they said, the first grade was too crowded, and what difference would it make to marsh people who’d do a few months of school, maybe, then never be seen again. As the principal walked her down a wide hallway that echoed their footsteps, sweat popped out on her brow. He opened the door to a classroom and gave her a little push.
Plaid shirts, full skirts, shoes, lots of shoes, some bare feet, and eyes—all staring. She’d never seen so many people. Maybe a dozen. The teacher, the same Mrs. Arial those boys had helped, walked Kya to a desk near the back. She could put her things in the cubbyhole, she was told, but Kya didn’t have any things.
The teacher walked back to the front and said, “Catherine, please stand and tell the class your full name.”
Her stomach churned.
“Come now, dear, don’t be shy.”
Kya stood. “Miss Catherine Danielle Clark,” she said, because that was what Ma once said was her whole name.
“Can you spell
Staring at the floor, Kya stood silent. Jodie and Ma had taught her some letters. But she’d never spelled a word aloud for anybody.
Nerves stirred in her stomach; still, she tried. “
Laughter let loose up and down the rows.
“Shh! Hush, y’all!” Mrs. Arial called out. “We never laugh, ya hear me, we never laugh at each other. Y’all know better’n that.”
Kya sat down fast in her seat at the back of the room, trying to disappear like a bark beetle blending into the furrowed trunk of an oak. Yet nervous as she was, as the teacher continued the lesson, she leaned forward, waiting to learn what came after twenty-nine. So far all Miss Arial had talked about was something called phonics, and the students, their mouths shaped like O’s, echoed her sounds of
, all of them moaning like doves.
About eleven o’clock the warm-buttery smell of baking yeast rolls and pie pastry filled the halls and seeped into the room. Kya’s stomach panged and fitted, and when the class finally formed a single file and marched into the cafeteria, her mouth was full of saliva. Copying the others, she picked up a tray, a green plastic plate, and flatware. A large window with a counter opened into the kitchen, and laid out before her was an enormous enamel pan of chicken pie crisscrossed with thick, crispy pastry, hot gravy bubbling up. A tall black woman, smiling and calling some of the kids by name, plopped a big helping of pie on her plate, then some pink-lady peas in butter and a yeast roll. She got banana pudding and her own small red-and-white carton of milk to put on her tray.
She turned into the seating area, where most of the tables were full of kids laughing and talking. She recognized Chase Andrews and his friends, who had nearly knocked her off the sidewalk with their bikes, so she turned her head away and sat at an empty table. Several times in quick succession, her eyes betrayed her and glanced at the boys, the only faces she knew. But they, like everyone else, ignored her.
Kya stared at the pie full of chicken, carrots, potatoes, and little peas. Golden brown pastry on top. Several girls, dressed in full skirts fluffed out wide with layers of crinolines, approached. One was tall,
skinny, and blond, another round with chubby cheeks. Kya wondered how they could climb a tree or even get in a boat wearing those big skirts. Certainly couldn’t wade for frogs; wouldn’t even be able to see their own feet.
As they neared, Kya stared at her plate. What would she say if they sat next to her? But the girls passed her by, chirping like birds, and joined their friends at another table. For all the hunger in her stomach, she found her mouth had gone dry, making it difficult to swallow. So after eating only a few bites, she drank all the milk, stuffed as much pie as she could into the milk carton, carefully so nobody would see her do it, and wrapped it and the roll in her napkin.
The rest of the day, she never opened her mouth. Even when the teacher asked her a question, she sat mute. She reckoned she was supposed to learn from them, not them from her.
Why put maself up for being laughed at?
At the last bell, she was told the bus would drop her three miles from her lane because the road was too sandy from there, and that she had to walk to the bus every morning. On the way home, as the bus swayed in deep ruts and passed stretches of cord grass, a chant rose from the front: “MISS Catherine Danielle Clark!” Tallskinnyblonde and Roundchubbycheeks, the girls at lunch, called out, “Where ya been, marsh hen? Where’s yo’ hat, swamp rat?”
The bus finally stopped at an unmarked intersection of tangled tracks way back in the woods. The driver cranked the door open, and Kya scooted out and ran for nearly half a mile, heaved for breath, then jogged all the way to their lane. She didn’t stop at the shack but ran full out through the palmettos to the lagoon and down the trail that led through dense, sheltering oaks to the ocean. She broke out onto the barren beach, the sea opening its arms wide, the wind tearing loose her
braided hair as she stopped at the tide line. She was as near to tears as she had been the whole day.
Above the roar of pounding waves, Kya called to the birds. The ocean sang bass, the gulls sang soprano. Shrieking and crying, they circled over the marsh and above the sand as she threw piecrust and yeast rolls onto the beach. Legs hanging down, heads twisting, they landed.
A few birds pecked gently between her toes, and she laughed from the tickling until tears streamed down her cheeks, and finally great, ragged sobs erupted from that tight place below her throat. When the carton was empty she didn’t think she could stand the pain, so afraid they would leave her like everybody else. But the gulls squatted on the beach around her and went about their business of preening their gray extended wings. So she sat down too and wished she could gather them up and take them with her to the porch to sleep. She imagined them all packed in her bed, a fluffy bunch of warm, feathered bodies under the covers together.
Two days later she heard the Ford Crestliner churning in the sand and ran into the marsh, stepping heavily across sandbars, leaving footprints as plain as day, then tiptoeing into the water, leaving no tracks, doubling back, and taking off in a different direction. When she got to mud, she ran in circles, creating a confusion of clues. Then, when she reached hard ground, she whispered across it, jumping from grass clump to sticks, leaving no trace.
They came every two or three days for a few more weeks, the man in the fedora doing the search and chase, but he never even got close. Then one week no one came. There was only the cawing of crows. She dropped her hands to her sides, staring at the empty lane.
Kya never went back to school a day in her life. She returned to heron watching and shell collecting, where she reckoned she could
learn something. “I can already coo like a dove,” she told herself. “And lots better than them. Even with all them fine shoes.”
, a few weeks after her day at school, the sun glared white-hot as Kya climbed into her brothers’ tree fort at the beach and searched for sailing ships hung with skull-and-crossbones flags. Proving that imagination grows in the loneliest of soils, she shouted, “Ho! Pirates ho!” Brandishing her sword, she jumped from the tree to attack. Suddenly pain shot through her right foot, racing like fire up her leg. Knees caving in, she fell on her side and shrieked. She saw a long rusty nail sticking deep in the bottom of her foot. “Pa!” she screamed. She tried to remember if he had come home last night. “HELP me, Pa,” she cried out, but there was no answer. In one fast move, she reached down and yanked the nail out, screaming to cover the pain.
She moved her arms through the sand in nonsensical motions, whimpering. Finally, she sat up and looked at the bottom of her foot. There was almost no blood, just the tiny opening of a small, deep wound. Right then she remembered the lockjaw. Her stomach went tight and she felt cold. Jodie had told her about a boy who stepped on a rusty nail and didn’t get a tetanus shot. His jaws jammed shut, clenched so tight he couldn’t open his mouth. Then his spine cramped backward like a bow, but there was nothing anybody could do but stand there and watch him die from the contortions.
Jodie was very clear on one point: you had to get the shot within two days after stepping on a nail, or you were doomed. Kya had no idea how to get one of those shots.
“I gotta do sump’m. I’ll lock up for sure waitin’ for Pa.” Sweat rolling down her face in beads, she hobbled across the beach, finally entering the cooler oaks around the shack.
Ma used to soak wounds in salt water and pack them with mud mixed with all kinds of potions. There was no salt in the kitchen, so Kya limped into the woods toward a brackish slipstream so salty at low tide, its edges glistened with brilliant white crystals. She sat on the ground, soaking her foot in the marsh’s brine, all the while moving her mouth: open, close, open, close, mocking yawns, chewing motions, anything to keep it from jamming up. After nearly an hour, the tide receded enough for her to dig a hole in the black mud with her fingers, and she eased her foot gently into the silky earth. The air was cool here, and eagle cries gave her bearing.
By late afternoon she was very hungry, so went back to the shack. Pa’s room was still empty, and he probably wouldn’t be home for hours. Playing poker and drinking whiskey kept a man busy most of the night. There were no grits, but rummaging around, she found an old greasy tin of Crisco shortening, dipped up a tiny bit of the white fat, and spread it on a soda cracker. Nibbled at first, then ate five more.
She eased into her porch bed, listening for Pa’s boat. The approaching night tore and darted and sleep came in bits, but she must have dropped off near morning for she woke with the sun fully on her face. Quickly she opened her mouth; it still worked. She shuffled back and forth from the brackish pool to the shack until, by tracking the sun, she knew two days had passed. She opened and closed her mouth. Maybe she had made it.
That night, tucking herself into the sheets of the floor mattress, her mud-caked foot wrapped in a rag, she wondered if she would wake up dead. No, she remembered, it wouldn’t be that easy: her back would bow; her limbs twist.
A few minutes later, she felt a twinge in her lower back and sat up. “Oh no, oh no. Ma, Ma.” The sensation in her back repeated itself and made her hush. “It’s just an itch,” she muttered. Finally, truly
exhausted, she slept, not opening her eyes until doves murmured in the oak.
She walked to the pool twice a day for a week, living on saltines and Crisco, and Pa never came home the whole time. By the eighth day she could circle her foot without stiffness and the pain had retreated to the surface. She danced a little jig, favoring her foot, squealing, “I did it, I did it!”